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While Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista SP1 have essentially the same kernel, there are components and features in Windows Server 2008 that in certain scenarios make it a better OS choice than Windows Vista. For example, I perform a lot of demonstrations and the ability to run Hyper-V is essential. So, I set about making Windows Server 2008 a lot friendlier as a day-to-day OS. I’m going to focus on 64-bit Windows Server 2008, since to use Hyper-V you need the 64-bit. But, if you are using Windows Server 2008 32-bit, you would use 32-bit components such as Windows Vista 32-bit drivers.

In this article I walk through some of the key areas I performed to make Windows Server 2008 a highly usable OS for my desktop. The steps I detail are generally not dependant on each other, and you may select to perform some steps and not others.

Drivers
Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista SP1 share a common architecture, so most Windows Vista drivers will work for Windows Server 2008. Also, because a 64-bit driver is needed for hardware to be Windows certified, we are fortunate that for most modern hardware a 64-bit Windows Vista driver is available to run on our Windows Server 2008 64-bit hardware.

For the hardware on your server, download the Windows Vista 64-bit driver and install. I have not come across hardware that will not work with the Vista 64-bit driver, so hopefully you will be lucky. If you are looking to run enhanced graphic functions, such as Windows Aero with desktop composition, you will need a fully functional graphics driver.

Roles and Features
To emulate Windows Vista, we need to enable a few features; for Hyper-V, a specific role. The Desktop Experience feature installs components like Windows Media Player, photo management, video codecs and desktop themes, so you will want this feature. You will probably also want to install the Windows PowerShell feature, Windows Server Backup Features and the Wireless LAN (WLAN) Service. Where possible, BitLocker is also a fantastic feature to enable. We can install these features via the Add Features Wizard with the commands below.

Servermanagercmd –i BitLocker
Servermanagercmd –i Desktop-Experience
Servermanagercmd –i PowerShell
Servermanagercmd –i Backup-Features -allSubFeatures
Servermanagercmd –i Wireless-Networking

The following answer file can be used to install all the features needed, which can be installed using “servermanagercmd –inputPath 2008desktop.xml”.

<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><ServerManagerConfiguration Action="Install" </span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'">xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/sdm/Windows/ServerManager/Configuration/2007/1"></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><span>   <Feature Id="BitLocker"/></span></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><span>   <Feature Id="Desktop-Experience"/></span></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><span>   <Feature Id="PowerShell"/></span></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><span>   <Feature Id="Backup-Features"/></span></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><span>   <Feature Id="Backup"/></span></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><span>   <Feature Id="Backup-Tools"/></span></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"><span>   <Feature Id="Wireless-Networking"/></span></span>
<span style="font-family: 'Courier New'"></ServerManagerConfiguration><!--l version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8--></span>

You will need to reboot the server after installing these features. Once the reboot is complete, you can install the Hyper-V role, which will require another reboot; however, you should install the final version of Hyper-V, which is available as update KB 950050. Hyper-V can be installed via the Add Roles wizard or using the “servermanagercmd –i Hyper-V” command.

Theme and Audio Support
Once you have installed a suitable graphics driver and installed Desktop Experience, we can use themes under Windows Server 2008. However, first we need to enable the themes service and set to start automatically at reboot. We can achieve this with the following commands (you must type the space between the equals sign and auto).

Sc config themes start= auto
Net start themes

Once enabled, you can access Windows Color and Appearance to enable a theme--such as Windows Aero--if your graphics driver meets requirements.

You should also ensure you have audio drivers installed and start the Audio service to enable audio playback.

Sc config audiosrv start= auto
Net start audiosrv

Application Priority and Performance
The first change to make is to configure the OS to give priority to foreground applications, which we achieve via the System control panel applet:

  1. Start the System control panel applet (Start - Control Panel - System). 
  2. Select the "Advanced system settings" link.
  3. Select the Advanced tab. 
  4. Click the Settings button under the Performance section. 
  5. Select the Advanced tab. 
  6. Check the "Programs" option.
  7. Click OK to all dialogs.

 

We can optionally enable Super Fetch to improve performance, but before we can we have to enable via the registry. Navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager\Memory Management\PrefetchParameters and create two DWORD values named EnablePrefetcher and EnableSuperfetch. Set the new values to three. We can now set to start automatically (sysmain is the internal name for superfetch).

Sc config sysmain start= auto
Net start sysmain

Multimedia and Graphics
This is because the Multimedia Class Scheduler in Windows Server 2008 is configured to reserve 100 percent of the CPU for lower priority tasks (in the event of conflict), which means anything running on the system can always override media playback. To resolve this, change the following registry value to a number less than decimal 100, HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Multimedia\SystemProfile\SystemResponsiveness. Windows Vista uses a setting of 20, so you may consider that value. More information on this setting and other more granular settings can be found at http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms684247.aspx.

By default, Explorer only shows the icon for the file type and not the content; however, we can change this behavior via the View tab of the Folder Options dialog (accessed via the Folder Options control panel applet or via the Tools - Folder Options menu item within Explorer).

As shown below, unselect the "Always show icons, never thumbnails" and click OK. Thumbnails of file content will now be displayed instead of the files icon.

 

We also probably want to enable the details pane which involves two steps. The first step is to turn off classic folder, view which we achieve via the Folder Options dialog (Tools – Folder Options) and select “Show preview and filters” in the Tasks section. Now select Layout from the Organize menu and enable the panes you wish to see, such as the Details Pane.

Search
Windows Server 2008 includes the Windows Search service as part of the File Services, which is required for many types of search operation in the OS and even applications such as Outlook and One Note. A newer version, Windows Search 4, is available as part of update KB 940157. The 64-bit version for Vista and 2008 is available at http://download.microsoft.com/download/8/7/3/87393551-5469-417E-B7D2-A71B40167D74/Windows6.0-KB940157-x64.msu.

Logon and Shutdown Behavior
There are other changes you may want to make, such as disabling the need to press Ctrl+Alt+Delete to logon and disabling the shutdown event tracker. Both are done via changes to the local policy:

  1. Start the local policy editor (gpedit.msc). 
  2. Navigate to Computer Configuration - Windows Settings - Security Settings - Local Policies - Security Options. 
  3. Double click "Interactive logon: Do not require CTRL + ALT + DEL" and set to Enabled and click OK. (See first figure below.)
  4. Navigate to Computer Configuration - Administrative Templates – System. 
  5. Double click "Display Shutdown Event Tracker" and set to Disabled. Click OK.  (See second figure below.)
  6. Close the policy editor.

 

Internet Explorer Configuration
You can disable the Internet Explorer Enhanced Security via Server Managers main page via the "Configure IE ESC" link in the Security Information and disable IE ESC as shown.  

Windows Messenger
The latest versions of Live Messenger have a very small initial installed which performs checks on the system. If the system meets requirements, then the installer downloads the full Messenger installation MSI and installs automatically.

The messenger initial installer will not install on Windows Server 2008, even though messenger itself runs fine on Windows Server 2008.

To install it, we need to bypass the initial installer that performs the OS check and directly install the messenger MSI file. There are numerous methods to obtain the Live Messenger installer:

  • Go to a site such as www.softpedia.com and search for Install_WLMessenger.msi or Windows Live Messenger. 
  • On a Windows Vista machine perform an installation of Windows Live Messenger. Go into explorer and remove the option to hide protected OS files. Browse to C:\Program Files\Common Files\WindowsLiveInstaller\MsiSources. Copy the MSI file to your 2008.  

The latter is the safest option, as you know the source of the files you are using.

Windows Sidebar
There are a number of cool gadgets for the Windows Sidebar that are useful on a server, so I really wanted to get the sidebar working on my Windows Server 2008 boxes. The solution is as follows.

  1. Copy the "Windows Sidebar" folder from a Windows Vista SP1 installations Program Files folder that is the same architecture as the Windows Server 2008 box you intend to enable Windows Sidebar on. (i.e., if I'm running Windows Server 2008 64-bit, then I need to copy from a 64-bit Windows Vista SP1 installation.) 
  2. Copy the "Windows Sidebar" copy into the Program Files folder of the Windows Server 2008 installation. (If 64-bit Windows Server 2008, copy to the "Program Files" folder and NOT the "Program Files (x86)" folder.) 
  3. Run the following commands from a prompt with administrative credentials o Regsvr32 atl.dll o regsvr32 "C:\Program Files\Windows Sidebar\sbdrop.dll" o regsvr32 "C:\Program Files\Windows Sidebar\wlsrvc.dll" o "C:\Program Files\Windows Sidebar\sidebar.exe" /RegServer 
  4. Copy the content of the Sidebar registry area from your Vista box to the 2008 box (HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Sidebar). The registry content is the same for 32-bit and 64-bit, so you can just paste the following into sidebar.reg and execute (by double clicking) to save any copying between machines.

    Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00 \[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Sidebar\]
    \[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Sidebar\Compatibility\]
    \[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Sidebar\Settings\]
    "SidebarDockedPartsOrder"="0x1,0x2,0x3,0x4 
  5. We can now launch sidebar with the "C:\Program Files\Windows Sidebar\sidebar.exe" command. 
  6. Sidebar will launch, and now access the Properties of Sidebar (right click on a blank area of sidebar and select Properties) and check the "State Sidebar when Windows starts" option.

To add additional sidebar gadgets, save the .gadget file to a folder on the local computer and then double click the gadget file to add to the sidebar.

Summary
You’ve probably enabled Hyper-V, and by now you will have noticed you can’t put the box into Hibernate or Suspend anymore. That is a by-design feature of Hyper-V. Also, if you are using Hyper-V, make sure you use a separate physical disk for the virtual disks.

You now have a Windows Server 2008 box running similar to a Vista box. Obviously, you need to ensure you are running anti-virus software and other protection. Most Vista solutions will work on Windows Server 2008.

If you are not using Hyper-V, seriously consider the value in all this effort. Windows Vista SP1 and Windows Server 2008 share the same kernel, so you probably will not see a huge difference using Server 2008 as a desktop OS over a properly tuned Vista SP1.